Covid, Trauma and the Failed US Autocratic State: A Coronavirus Diary
27 June 2022
A roller coaster that once sat on the Funtown Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J., rests in the ocean on Oct. 31, 2012, after the pier was washed away by Hurricane Sandy; Image Credit: Julio Cortez/AP
For E. Ann Kaplan, the current health calamity serves as a memento of dread, fear, and grief she experienced as a child in the World War II, and which 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy also triggered. These traumatic experiences continue to resurface with new catastrophic events as specters. Through such experiences, she argues, we confront the unsettling certainty about the opportunities to save ourselves that we have squandered in the past and that cannot be regained. As Kaplan argues, this dreadfulness is the result of the absent Stateand having no reliable, expert leadership to give people (and in her text, Americans) a sense of safety and of things under control.
In order, as a public, to think about the question posed to authors, namely, “Where do we go From Here?”, we need first to know where we have been. For this, I draw on my Coronavirus Diaries” which I began writing in March 2020, as soon as my husband and I went into lockdown in California. The Pandemic’s impact is widely known to have depended heavily on social class, race, ethnicity, gender and wealth. But here I want to focus on structural issues that both implicate, and impact on, all of us living with the virus in the US. Both white privileged citizens and (especially) less fortunate black and brown subjects, were prey (to different degrees) to a deep failure of the United States’ masculinist, autocratic Trumpian Government.
Covid-19 and Zoom culture has changed so many aspects of life (such as our relationship to technologies, our work places and habits; our sense of our selves versus others; how we relate to objects we live with; how we work, play, eat, shop and more) in ways that make it impossible to go back. Digital media use has exploded, and not only in negative ways. Only after these considerations can we think about where to go from here.
And even then, the question is hard to address because where is here? “Here” is an ever-evolving place. It’s a movable shooting target. Once we got the vaccines, and they were widely available, we thought we could see the end of the virus. Yet only too soon the Delta variant (and yet more) began to show up. With vaccinations stalled and the new variant’s extraordinary contagiousness, we now have to face the surges already taking place in States that are largely unvaccinated. The vaccinated have cause to worry as well, since they too can be transmitters. We have to learn to live with an ever shifting “new normal” for the unforeseeable future.
This makes all the more important understanding the impact of the Pandemic hitherto, and thinking through what might be to come.
My essay will deal more with psychology and mental health issues – especially trauma – than philosophy as such. I will experiment with a new form – one which combines personal narrative with larger socio-political theory and practices. As we will see, personal wellbeing can hardly be separated from broader political issues. In my case, as we’ll see, political and world events were major forces that shaped who I am and from which I suffered mentally and physically. My Coronavirus Diary shows how, because of the absent State, Covid-19 triggered childhood World War II trauma, along with later disasters I lived through (e. g., 9/11, Hurricane Sandy). COVID plunged me back into the world of dread, fear, grief I experienced as a child in the war and which 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy also triggered. But if on the emotional level, the experience of COVID was uncannily familiar, the larger socio-political context differed, even if some parallel (also uncanny) similarities exist in regard to fascism arising in the USA today (as William E. Connolly has shown (1) and as I note below).
On July 15, 2020, I wrote in my Diary:
The Pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus has touched all aspects of our lives from eating, cooking, travel and bodily care, to exercising, entertainment, consuming, politics and economics. It has also made us more globally oriented than ever, with nations viewing one another’s Pandemic strategies ever more competitively, even as some nations try to shut borders to keep the virus out… It’s hard to remain positive about human nature given what the Pandemic has revealed: We seem more than ever to be an (accidentally) suicidal species. Much cleverer minds than mine have been commenting on the Pandemic from the start and some of their thoughts enter into this project. What I offer here is a journey into, if not out of, the Pandemic reflecting one person’s feelings, thoughts, anxieties and (by chance, sometimes) fun. As Edwige Danticat has argued (2), the point of writing daily entries during a crisis is to record the moment, to focus on the specificity of traumatic time. When we look back on major traumatic events (WWII, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, climate refugees), we color them from the perspective of the here and now. Such retrospective remembering will inevitably be a different version than one written down as the crisis emerges, develops, and sometime, ends. But that’s part of what makes writing and recording invaluable as a cultural phenomenon.
I write partly to be a witness to the impact of the crisis as it evolves from my point of view. Experiences of COVID vary widely, with some people finding benefits from the lockdown situation. Not everyone by any means was traumatized. I am not writing with a view to any particular audience, although I hope what I write might help, or at least be of interest, to a general public. I also write to mitigate the pain, to deal with (and understand) the trauma I am experiencing daily.
Now, eighteen months later, what is important to me is to see the extent to which my sense of wellbeing depended (and still does depend) on the condition of governmental agents supposedly being ‘in charge.’ The phrase ‘Failed State’ in my title plays with its genuine meaning, asserting that Trump’s autocratic White House ‘failed’ all Americans (minorities and women the hardest hit), including those devoted to him, and caused tragic, needless deaths.
But first, what kind of trauma is Covid-19? How does it differ from, or have similar aspects to, prior disasters, like the Holocaust, genocides, or those I’ve personally experienced? While there have been many insightful articles published about COVID, trauma, and mental health, by seasoned professionals, rarely if ever do authors try to analyze exactly what is special about COVID trauma or situate the trauma in terms of socio-political realities. (3)
Part I: “Classic” Trauma and Pandemic Trauma: Differences and Similarities
Trauma theory offers two main temporalities for trauma: a) A traumatic event is not registered in the cortex. There’s a time delay. Past trauma is triggered in the present and PTSD follows; b) Imagining a future disaster triggers traumatic symptoms: pre-traumatic stress syndrome emerges, a syndrome I discuss at length in Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (Rutgers Press, 2015).
On the one hand, the Pandemic offers a new situation unlike either of these. The crisis emerged gradually over a couple of months rather than being a sudden event. I’d argue COVID trauma is different in terms of its temporality, which is that of an ongoing, nebulous experience that does not let up. While it’s possible to say that something like the Holocaust was also an ongoing event, early indications were concretely there to be seen unless one was in complete denial. But COVID was invisible to most of us, as I elaborate below. On the other hand, the Pandemic may trigger the pre-traumatic stress syndrome as regards the future, much like future worries about climate change. This is especially true in the case of there being no reliable, expert leadership to give Americans a sense of safety and of things under control.
Central to my argument here is that, indeed, a Pandemic like this one required rational, compassionate, informed and activist leadership from the top. Wars generally bring a nation together, but such a collective response is unlikely with a virus that almost from the start (and even before its deliberate politicizing under Trump), pulls people apart because of fears of infection. This is why expert leadership from the top was ever more needed than usually in national disasters.
Part 2: Thesis re Trauma and the Absent Non-Caring State
In Trump’s COVID America, my own trauma (and, I assume, that of many others) was made so much worse because it was happening with Trump at the helm: I nearly said ‘in charge,’ but of course that’s the point. He was NOT in charge. Everything felt more dangerous because the State was not taking care, not in control; on the contrary, Trump’s White House offered a malignant, increasingly anti-democratic authority, as it allowed the virus to continue to spread. Lies and misinformation made my panic much worse. Trump’s followers hung on his every word and believed whatever he said. And the more they trumpeted (pun intended), the scarier the many of us felt. Trump’s followers gravitate to him as to a religious figure – that is as someone who will save them from the (in fact imaginary) fate Trump has warned them is to come. This is as far as possible from the kind of security a public normally expects from a government. We expect rational, well-informed information, based on science, to come from the top, and be available for the public’s consideration. Instead, Trump operated like a leader of a masculinist cult demanding unreflective loyalty. In the course of this, Trump thoroughly degraded the legitimacy of the United States President, and that of the United States qua nation. (4)
On May 12, 2020, I wrote:
The sense of no-one at the helm of this Pandemic at the federal level is a constant worry. The governors and mayors of at least democratic states are trying to bridge the gap, but don’t have the resources or clout of the White House or government. Tragic and ghastly to be watching Trump botching it all, day after day, running his re-election campaign while people die. My entire relationship to the Pandemic would be vastly improved if I felt confident about the leadership at the highest level – if I could see that the best experts were being called upon to guide the President, that the federal government was in charge, making wise decisions, and guiding Americans in the best and safest way. In fact, it’s the reverse. We have non-experts flailing around, at the whim of Trump and his cronies, while the nation, and perhaps the world, suffers carnage – physical and economic. The contrast with leadership in Europe and Asia is galling.
I learned from this experience what I had not fully realized before, namely, the close link between my inner sense of wellbeing, and the leadership of the nation. I panicked when COVID came because the Trumpian government was clearly out of control. As a people, we were so much more vulnerable to the virus because of the chaos and confusion being generated from the top. With judicious leadership, I believe we would all have felt better and safer.
Trump exploits the fact that human development is well known to begin in extreme vulnerability (see Sigmund Freud, D. W. Winnicott, and Melanie Klein, among others). Infants can do very little for themselves, and have few means under their control to get what they need to survive. This dependency on the Kleinian breast or Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ is wired. We do all we can as we grow up to avoid returning to such dependency – which is especially humiliating for men, hence the need to expel feelings that seem like “feminine” weakness. (5) But there is a limit. European Nations in the post-WWII era understood the need for a safety net, and developed the welfare state. This served nations like England well once the Pandemic hit. The National Health Service (NHS) had a structure in place on which the British could depend once large numbers of people were getting sick. There was a basic trust in the NHS, at least to start with. If the NHS stumbled somewhat from confusing leadership of Boris Johnson, it served the nation well once the vaccine arrived (the UK developed one of the vaccines, the AstraZeneca, that would become crucial as time went on).
This aspect of European generosity (at least by comparison to the USA) enables Slavoj Žižek (writing from a European perspective) to be more optimistic about the future than I can ever be looking from an American perspective. (6) Žižek’s analysis in his 2020 monograph, Pandemic: Covid-19 Shakes the World, shows that he and I share many aspects as regards analysis of the Pandemic, but his yearning for what he calls a ‘new communism’ would sound horrific in the USA context, however wonderful to contemplate. Žižek is right to see the global situation as either what he calls ‘barbarism’ or this ‘new communism.’ He calls on the world to sign up for the latter and come together to solve the danger to humanity’s survival.
Part 3: The “Absent” State Leads to Querying the Self: Losing a Sense of Self
On March 31, 2020 I wrote in my Diary:
Unreal is how I feel many days. Here I am sitting at the table, facing our orange tree on the patio, along with the Bird of Paradise bush, aglow, and around the corner, the rich profusion of Bougainvillea, a deep mass of red. And yet, I know, outside there’s a great deal of pain and suffering as people fall ill and into unprepared hospitals. The two situations just don’t match. I feel guilty for being privileged… I see myself differently because of this other world of pain and suffering. Because of governmental failures, I feel as if I have to do something.
Part of this sense of losing the self came from the mandate to socially distance from other people and not touch, hug, or kiss family and friends. For some cultures, where it’s normal to kiss both cheeks as a greeting, this is a particular strain. But for all, bodily contact confirms one’s sense of being connected to the other, and experiencing self-to-self bonding is crucial for mental health.
Part 4: Trauma of “No Touching” and the Heartless State
On March 28, 2020 I wrote:
The biggest and perhaps most dramatic and troubling impact of COVID is the new way we have to relate to people. The so-called ‘social’ distancing, which is really ‘physical’ distancing as my step-daughter pointed out, is a very new way of being with our friends. We can actually be ‘social’ over Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, but we can’t be physically with people. No dinner parties! No eating out with friends. No walks and talks (theoretically, we can walk together but one can’t really talk at six feet apart). The deprivation of being close to people is still being researched.
On another occasion, I wrote:
Everything is suspect: door handles, screen latches, computer and phone screens….
Some people even worry about clothes worn outside, which so far, I have not worried about. I do find myself washing my scarves very frequently which never occurred to me before….
No-one really knows what to do because the virus is so new and the scientists are still doing lab tests to figure it all out as regards what’s safe, what not safe. We won’t know for sure for more than a year. But scientists are gathering the data.
In other words, we were in a situation where more than ever we needed to feel that governmental agencies were looking out for us, cared about what happened to us, were communicating regularly from the White House, and so on. That would have partly compensated for what we were all losing vis-à-vis friends and family. Instead, each family has had to (and continues to have to) sort things out for itself relying on what information is available.
Part 5: Trauma Processes that Emerged from the Absent State
a) Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PRETSS)
In my case, fearing for the future took over my life during the first months of the COVID lockdown since we felt so vulnerable and on our own. I allowed my mind to range into questions of when this will end? How will it end? Will the food chain be disrupted, leaving us with nothing to eat? Will infrastructures begin to collapse? Will civilization as we know it be over, life reduced to basic survival of the fittest? In all this, I was bringing into the present narratives and images from the many dystopian films and fiction I wrote about in Climate Trauma. Anxiety often accelerated into full-blown panic attacks, sending me to get help. I was having “pre-traumatic stress” symptoms before any scenario such as the ones seen in the films (for example, The Road  or The Book of Eli ) had arisen in reality. A steady White House team of experts, actively addressing the situation, would have mitigated extreme worries about the future.
With COVID, then, the trauma takes a complex, multifaceted, form. Unlike classic trauma, we are aware of being traumatized. There’s the odd situation of ordinary subjects as well as experts analyzing and writing about Pandemic trauma as people are experiencing it. After nearly two years of living with the virus, authors can look back on what we have already experienced as we seek to analyze what’s happening now. This complicates Pandemic trauma’s temporality even more.
b) COVID Trauma as Cultural Process
In addition, Pandemic trauma differs from classic trauma in that the danger is basically invisible and ongoing. We can’t see the aspects of the virus (the bacteria in the nose, the aerosols emerging from a person’s mouth, the fine droplets that can infect one following a jogger on a path). The danger is everywhere, lurking, and ready to seize any person. The trauma is largely linked to the uncertainty many experience through the virus’ invisibility. Will I catch it today? Tomorrow? When?
Concrete signs of the virus were indirect and took the shape of pervasive frightening images showing nurses and doctors dressed in PPE and looking like astronauts landing on a distant planet. I often felt I was in a horror movie. These images let us know that people were (and still are) getting ill, that hospitals were and are overwhelmed, that people are dying, but that’s as close as some of us get to experiencing the virus. We also heard of the many largely black and brown and low paid workers forced to continue going to work, despite the virus, so as to keep bread on the table. At the same time, then enabled many of us to stay home and be safe. They did a huge service keeping food chains and transport going. As was widely reported, the Pandemic revealed scorching inequalities between US racial groups as regards wealth, health and power – inequalities exacerbated by the failure of leadership to activate remedies to such dire inequalities.
In this slow, ongoing trauma, cultures world-wide are having to adapt to a highly infectious illness continuing to spread out of control across states, nations, entire continents. The numbers are horrendous and increasing with the Delta variant. We are living in the middle of something that has no clear end. If not exactly unprecedented (see Ebola and the Sars virus) we have to go back to 1918 and the disastrous flu epidemic to see what we can learn, so rare are Pandemics like this one in the U. S. The trauma in the early days (pre-vaccines) was exacerbated by our having so little to guide us, and by many of us not seeing any way to control the illness given absence from the top.
The Holocaust and Germany offer one example of how a traumatic event is embedded in a culture, and the USA offers another in regard to crimes against Native-, African- and Asian-Americans. The trauma process continues over the years, crimes unconsciously there, being worked through hopefully at times. At other times old racist, sexist and anti-immigrant violence re-emerges. Only specific efforts at the national level, especially as regards education, can begin to free a culture from such traumatic histories.
Although only so far lasting eighteen or so months (versus the Holocaust’s seven years and over a hundred years for Native and African American genocide and slavery), Covid-19 is spreading in a similar way and is already shaping a generation of young people in ways that will require attention for years to come. Think of the impact, for example, of masked faces surrounding babies in the early years in Day Care or School, of children having to avoid touching or being close to friends, of frequently washing hands, and having to use anti-bacterial wipes frequently during a day. Arguably, COVID was hardest on teenagers, as I observed in the Diary on April 14, 2020:
Articles predict a rise in PTSD following the lockdown. Already therapists are working over-time, via Zoom, counselling panic-stricken people. Entertainment communities and streaming companies fill the newspaper stories with letting people know where they can find their art works of whatever kinds, and also movies, opera, theatre, museum exhibitions. Many young people are ensconced in video games, and teenagers especially are having a hard time missing out on the important socializing so crucial at their stage of life. How will this influence their futures and ways of being? Depression, even suicide, are not uncommon. Therapists indeed have their work cut out for them.
A bit earlier, on March 28, 2020, I wrote in the Diary:
Most articles and research data deal with the related mental health impact of all the changes to life-style and being in the world. There are articles each day by psychiatrists and psychologists about anxiety, trauma and panic disorders, about the value of resilience, about how very differently different people and communities are reacting to the new ways of living in home world.
Reflecting on this comment in the present, I recall that authors rarely explicitly referenced the socio-political context in which COVID emerged, Trump’s denial of COVID, his calling it ‘the Chinese virus,’ or the influence on people of his recommending dangerous supposed ‘cures,’ like swallowing bleach. It’s as if that context has no bearing on the trauma people experience. Often, articles centered on a ‘we’ which could mean the nation but in a vague way, as in the concept of people needing to ‘process’ COVID and adapt to what is often called ‘the new normal.’ Nor have I seen professionals discussing ways COVID trauma can trigger prior traumas, especially those where there is some similarity as regards the structure, context, and politics. Thus, COVID may trigger prior traumas, as I go on to show.
c) COVID, the State and Triggering Prior Trauma
I was a three-year old English child living in the Midlands when the UK declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939. It’s not too much of a stretch to see contextual (not literal) similarities with the Nazi Germany that filled my childhood with dread, fear of invasion, fear of bombs, death. Hitler’s Autocratic State has been compared to Trump’s America (7) and COVID amply confirmed many of Connolly’s insights about the chaotic Trump White House. Connolly is especially clear as regards the rhetorical efficiency of Trump’s big lie strategy (in this case, he’s referring to the Obama ‘birther’ lie, which Connolly – writing in 2017 – sees as laying the ground work for later lies). This strategy was honed long before the equally huge lie about the 2020 election. Connolly describes the lie being embedded in deliberate body language and affect to arouse the crowds. He describes (following Klaus Theweleit’s 1989 research on Hitler’s bodily strategies (8)) the insistence on the strong male body, armed against any feminine ‘softness’ so as to be brutal without remorse. Connolly sees aspects of Trump’s success similar to those of Hitler, something often ignored by other philosophers. (9)
As the war wore on, and I began to understand Hitler’s role, I panicked because there seemed no recourse to Hitler’s steady march conquering Europe in the early years of the war. My parents sat hunched over the radio, listening to Winston Churchill’s broadcasts. I began to see Hitler as a dictator of evil intensions (to me, he bore the image of a monster) taking over my world. My dread was directly linked to this monstrous autocrat. COVID plummeted me back into living with dread because of the situational and structural similarities to how I felt during WWII, when I worried about food shortages, when there was limited travel allowed (so a kind of lockdown), experiencing terror during air raids and sheltering in small spaces and extreme anxiety about the future; anxiety as to the uncertainty of when it would end. (10)
On April 1st, 2020 I wrote this as regards triggering WWll:
My not trusting food from restaurants during COVID comes from my WWII problems with food infection. During the war, several of us children got what we used to call ‘Yellow Jaundice’ (i. e., Herpes A) from bad food. COVID triggered this frightening experience. A final trigger back to WWll at dinner time today was when the main light in our living room went out, just as twilight ended and the outside was getting dark. During the war, we lived in perpetual darkness once the sun went down. We had curtains with black lining, but still, lights might be seen by the Nazis seeking a munitions factory not far from our house. So we covered lights to prevent anything being seen outside. Wartime memories of the dark triggered the present panic during COVID, just by the ordinary setting of the sun, or a light failing somewhere in the house.
COVID triggers Hurricane Sandy:
We happened to be in New York City when Hurricane Sandy hit. I was preoccupied with preparing to leave for a conference, so not attending sufficiently to the news. While others, having heard of the likelihood of major power outages, were hurriedly booking themselves into hotels up town, we continued working, semi-oblivious to it all. Ultimately, we found ourselves on the fourteenth floor of a high rise with no power at all. An eery silence haunted us both inside and out. New York City was a ghost town. As soon as the sun went down, we were in the dark. We had to walk up and down the fourteen floors to get food and water from the few stores able to stay open. We had to shop in the dark. I pulled out a credit card but of course could not use that. At night, I lay in bed and waited for the dawning sun to make life bearable. We had no access to news except word of mouth from the doormen of the building, our only contact for days. Similarities with WWII are obvious. I was back in that dread once again.
We find here the mise-en-abyme of memory discussed above. COVID triggered Hurricane Sandy as it had triggered my World War II experiences of being in darkness and a kind of lockdown. That is, each traumatic experience triggers other similar experiences, leaving the subject with layered memories of trauma. It is important to first understand how traumas evoke other traumas, and then begin the process of working each through so as to dispel the negative energy each event arouses.
On March 16, 2020, I wrote:
Nights are difficult because of my fears and deep unsettlement brought on by the virus. I relax once it’s light outside. I try to continue sleeping comfortably. With it being light outside, my feeling fearful subsides. It all seems strangely familiar. My brain lights up with memories of Hurricane Sandy. We were in lockdown in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan. Most people had left. We were in total darkness after sunset for several days, without Wi-Fi, electricity, running water, radio or TV, etc. COVID triggers such prior traumatic situations which were somewhat similar to the current experience rendering dealing with the present more difficult. How can I untangle what are genuine, ‘rational’ fears regarding COVID from the sense of dread and terror that actually belongs to my WWll childhood?
Part 6: Trauma of Climate Change Linked to the Pandemic
I quickly realized the Pandemic had to be closely allied with climate change in that warmer weather changes how bacteria function, and also allows for new ones to emerge. Way early in this crisis, and given my climate change research, I had thought that the big drop in travel by whatever means (car, plane, bus, train, cruise ships, etc.), and, in big cities, the closing of theatres and so many businesses linked to travel and pleasure, would inevitably mean less use of fossil fuels with resulting lower carbon fall out, less pollution, cleaner air and water.
Gradually, The New York Times began to do the research and indeed came out with a series of articles dramatizing the drop in carbon emissions, but also showing how complex the issue is. Meehan Crist’s March 20 report, “What the Pandemic Means for Climate Change,” shows the positive effect of the pandemic on emissions, but raises the crucial question, i. e.: “But in the longer term, will the virus help or harm the climate?” (11) She notes the dreadful human tragedy that the Pandemic has brought, but has in mind that the Pandemic is also “an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one, with even bigger stakes,” namely dramatic climate change.
I wrote on April 28:
Checking out yesterday’s newspapers, I was very interested in a report by Margaret Renkl on April 27 in the New York Times, “Now we Know How Quickly our Trashed Planet Can Heal.” She notes that “The coronavirus will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, and how readily and how swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance. We are seeing how clear the waters of Venice can become in the absence of motorboats, how clear the air of New Delhi can become in the absence of cars. The Pandemic is teaching us that all is not lost.”
The same day there was an Op Ed: “Are Humans to Blame for the Coronavirus? How Deforestation Gives Rise to Pandemics.” Both reports bring up questions I have had, but pushed to the back of my mind because of the now immediate, right in my face, worries about the Pandemic. One interesting article, titled “What Nairobi do We Want to Emerge from this Crisis?” pointed out that one result of the slowing down of life in Kenya was that now Mount Kenya, usually hidden from view because of thick pollution from fossil fuels, is actually visible! Surely this is a wake-up call to people who probably had forgotten, or younger ones, who never had seen, Mount Kenya, or known it was there behind the pollution.
One important result of the Pandemic is bringing new awareness to the excesses of extreme capitalism ongoing before. For the billionaires, there had been a crazy, frenetic spiraling up of ever more exotic luxury travel and ‘adventures,’ luxury clothes, and mansions beyond belief in size and extravagance. (12) A much-needed correction might now be available. Perhaps an upside of the Pandemic will be that many workers (men as well as women) will be able to continue working from home, thus contributing to lower pollution from the emissions which car travel involves. But again, where is the pain being felt? As always, it’s minorities and the least well-off, the essential workers, who suffer the most and don’t have the choice to work from home. Rational, science-based, multifaceted leadership from the top is especially essential as regards climate and rolling back fossil fuels; without that, humanity is doomed.
Part 7: Resilience in Spite of it All
What I’ve argued here is that the shocking absence of rational leadership as Covid-19 got underway enhanced, if it did not actually produce, pandemic trauma. Once that had happened, cultural trauma, a process, got underway. Pandemic trauma also triggered people’s prior traumatic experiences, initiating a mise-en-abyme of memories of catastrophic situations.
But the shock produced by the Pandemic is not necessarily only negative. The so-called ‘new normal,’ much discussed in the media, has some positive aspects. I see resilience in especially male corporate workers as regards the benefits of working from home (able to spend more time with family; a less rushed routine; less preoccupation with consuming and with ambition, etc.). Many (as noted) are hoping to continue working from home. COVID benefits like that are unfortunately not an option for front-line workers; there should be continuing federal aid to help low wage workers continue to labor for the good of most of us who are able to stay home. As many point out, the Pandemic offers opportunities for re-evaluating one’s life, and it’s an opportunity on the socio-political level as well for that more humane, multifaceted, collaborative and empathic leadership than has been common in the USA.
On May 20, 2020 I wrote in my Diary:
I have always appreciated being in nature. But my experience taking walks during the Pandemic is amazing: I am totally absorbed in the intensity of the nature around me. It is a special time of year with incredible flowers of exotic kinds blooming all around me. Each day new flowers seem to appear, and the intensity of the red bougainvillea or intense purple of the jacaranda trees takes my breath away. I don’t recall being able to experience nature with this particular intensity before. The deep blue of the sky astounds me, as does the deep green of the trees foregrounded against the blue. I keep staring because it all seems so amazing. I seem able to pay attention to small details as never before and to appreciate the sounds of the birds newly. I always loved nature but I took it on the run or amidst planning work or travel in my head. The Pandemic has had a profound impact and I feel myself changing. It will be interesting to see if the changes last once life begins to resemble that before the crisis, if it ever does.
The New York Times, meanwhile, interviewed people about the impact of the Pandemic, and brought out a special section titled “Transformation: How the Pandemic Birthed an Awakening for so Many Americans” (Sunday, April 17, 2021). The responses are diverse and take up varied ways people experience changing, but all agree life cannot continue as before. Mary Fugate notes, “I don’t think I can go back to a ‘before.’ I don’t think I fit into that life anymore” (6). Joelle Wright-Terry states, “I know I am becoming someone different” (10). And Melva James is excited about “Living inside my body and getting to know my full self is part of my journey from nothingness to joy. I am so excited and hopeful about what life has to offer now that I don’t feel like I’m just existing” (14).
One of the ways I dealt with the panicky feeling of no-one at the national helm in 2020 was by actively engaging in political work. It was clear Trump had to go, or America would suffer a terrible catastrophe, one which would make the current situation seems child’s play. Like millions of other volunteers, I wrote postcards to democrats in Arizona and Texas; I worked with Vote Forward mailing letters; I joined the local Indivisible chapter, and learned to call local representatives’ offices when there was governmental legislation we wanted them to support. I donated to support specific candidates in crucial races; I marched in small local protests but gave money for larger ones I couldn’t attend. It was my form of resilience. And working with others in all these endeavors created a sense of community, if only at a distance, via Zoom meetings with candidates we wanted to win, and whose campaigns we wanted to support. We were (and remain) united in saving US democracy at all costs. That Biden won was not really a miracle, but the result of all those volunteers’ back-breaking work. Biden gives us a short time to breathe, to hope, and to work toward a viable future for our children and grandchildren.
Such resilience is an important aspect of the trauma process working its way through our lives and enabling a degree of healing. All is still very uncertain. The virus is far from under control and the future holds many challenges. The Anti-Vaccine Movement (with gross misinformation) continues apace. (13) But self-searching on both the individual and collective/national levels can be productive and bring about much needed change for a kinder leadership, for collective responsibility towards healing, and a more equitable United States.
1. William E. Connolly, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2017.
2. Edwige Danticat, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. Audiobook, 11 July 2017.
3. See, for example, Kim Usher, Joanne Durkin, and Navjot Bhullar, “The Covid-19 Pandemic and Mental Health Impacts.” The International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 29.3 (June 2020): 315–318, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/inm.12726. Accessed 25 October 2021.Typically, there are only very brief references to the larger socio-political context for the mental health impact. For example, they note that “[a]s with any infectious disease outbreak, it is necessary for the Governments to take steps to quell the epidemic of fear that eventuates (Malta et al. 2020),” but fail to go into any detail regarding individual relationship to the State. Similarly, they note the need to counter misinformation but again there’s no examining of how and why such misinformation is disastrous for the Public. Cf. Monica Malta, Anne W. Rimoin, and Steffanie A. Strathdee, “The coronavirus 2019‐nCoV epidemic: Is hindsight 20/20?” EClinical Medicine, 20:100289 (2020), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7057189/. Accessed 25 October 2021.
4. In this regard, see Howard W. French, “Can America Remain Preeminent?” New York Review of Books, 29 April 2021, 47–49.
5. Connolly, Aspirational Fascism 56–57.
6. Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World. New York: Polity Press, 2020.
7. See Connolly, Aspirational Fascism 31–72.
8. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Male Bodies, Psychoanalyzing White Terror. Minnesota, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1989.
9. Connolly notes that “members of the ‘professoriate’ and ‘intelligentsia’ do not appreciate profoundly enough the power of public speeches to infect and move a large population primed to listen by historical shocks, resentments, grievances, and embodied dispositions.” (Aspirational Fascism xxii)
10. The one difference between living in England through WWII and now enduring the Pandemic is that whether Churchill was really in charge or not – new historians are less sanguine about his authority – we all believed his authority would bring us through. There was a unique kind of community solidarity (even if somewhat mythic in fact) with people caring for one another on the national scale that I have not experienced in the USA. I would have been far more anxious had Churchill not conveyed this sense of being in charge, showing confidence that England would come through.
11. Meehan Crist, “What the Pandemic Means for Climate Change.” The New York Times, March 20 2020, A4–5.
12. Michelle Goldberg, in a New York Times Opinion essay written as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was underway, takes a related despairing view of USA’s future. The response to the 9/11 attacks, she says, “helped turn the US into the debased, half-crazed, fading power we are today.” She continues to note that “We end up with our own democracy in tatters,” adding that “Now we’re sour, suspicious and lacking in discernible ideals,” leading to the fact that America “is entering a protracted, nervous breakdown.” (Michelle Goldberg, “How 9/11 Turned America Into a Half-Crazed, Fading Power.” 9 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/09/opinion/how-9-11-turned-america-into-a-half-crazed-fading-power.html. Accessed 25 October 2021) I wish I didn’t agree with this gloomy view, but, in what follows, I’ll conclude on a different note.
13. See Tara Haelle, “This is the Moment the Anti-Vaccine Movement Has Been Waiting For.” New York Times,31 August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/anti-vaccine-movement.html. Accessed 25 October 2021. She notes, importantly, that “[t]heir versatility and ability to read and assimilate the language and culture of different social groups has been key to their success.”